say customs authorities knew of role in drug smugglers' deaths
12:10 PM CST on
Saturday, March 13, 2004
© The Dallas Morning News, 2004
U.S. customs officials knew last summer that an
informant on their payroll supervised the torture and killing of
suspected drug smugglers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and
intervened only when two U.S. drug enforcement agents were
targeted for assassination, sources told The Dallas Morning
The informant continued working for the Juárez drug cartel
and its chief, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, while providing details
of the cartel's operations to Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE), according to current and former U.S. law
Those officials are familiar with a confidential ICE
intelligence memorandum, written in August, that
details activities of the informant,
most of whose work for the Juárez cartel was aimed at
eliminating rival drug traffickers.
Some U.S. officials suggested the informant also knew of, or
participated in, other slayings, including the killing of women
in Juárez. Since 1993, more than 320 women have been killed, 93
of them believed to be victims of rape-slayings, and scores more
are missing, many of them believed dead, according to Amnesty
An ICE spokesman in Washington declined to discuss the case
involving the informant.
"Your questions concern a pending criminal case. It is our
long-standing policy not to comment on pending criminal cases.
We will follow that policy in this case. In general, ICE takes
any and all allegations of misconduct seriously and resolves
them with expediency," said the spokesman, Dean Boyd.
Mexico City-based officials with the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration and ICE declined to comment about the informant.
The informant "supervised the murder" of a suspected drug
trafficker in August on orders from the Juárez cartel, though he
had "minimal participation," according to U.S. law enforcement
officials with knowledge of the memorandum.
The informant went so far as to audiotape the interrogation
and subsequent killing of the trafficker, according to U.S. law
ICE officials apparently reined in the informant in January,
but by then he had participated in the killings of at least 13
more people in the Juárez area, including one U.S. citizen, said
sources familiar with the case.
The bodies of 12 of the 14 victims were unearthed Jan. 23 in
the back yard of a modest dwelling used as a safe house in a
quiet Juárez neighborhood. Mexican federal officials are looking
for at least two more bodies, targeting several other homes
around the city for possible excavation.
Customs agents apparently did not share details of the
informant's actions with other U.S. agencies at the time. Over
the next few months, that same informant helped apprehend or
implicate several "big fish," such as 17 corrupt state police
officers – including a top commander, Miguel Ángel Loya Gallegos
– and a ranking Juárez cartel lieutenant, Heriberto Santillán
Tabares, who was arrested on Jan. 15, U.S. law enforcement
One U.S. official attempted to defend the informant's
actions, saying that once all the facts are known, "things won't
seem so black and white."
A former U.S. law enforcement official, however, disagreed.
"I can understand this happening one time, but you cannot allow
it to happen 12, 13, 14 times," the official said. "The last
time I checked in the dictionary, there's a big difference
between being present at a murder and supervising it."
The Mexico attorney general's office, said to also be
familiar with the informant's work and his relationship with the
U.S. government, did not respond to written questions.
Top U.S. law enforcement authorities have been briefed about
the informant's role, the former U.S. official said, noting that
the detailed memo reached "the upper echelons" of intelligence
and law enforcement agencies in Washington, D.C.
Some U.S investigators said the informant probably was an
important member – perhaps a supervisor – of La Linea, or the
Line, a group of drug traffickers and Juárez and Chihuahua state
police officers who authorities say protect cartel leaders and
smuggle drugs across the border. About 70 percent of the cocaine
that reaches the United States flows through Juárez-El Paso,
drug enforcement officials have said.
Mexican federal authorities are investigating La Linea for
possible involvement in the slayings of the Juárez women.
"He [the informant] may definitely be involved in other
murders, including the women," said one U.S. official who
insisted on anonymity. "But at this time, all we know is those
of the 14 men."
"He definitely cannot be any lower than a member of La Linea,"
added a former top law enforcement official. "The license to
kill comes only from Vicente Carrillo Fuentes or another top
lieutenant, and that kind of license or privilege is awarded
only to members of La Linea."
The case underscores the risks U.S. agents face when they
work with shadowy informants who often come with criminal
resumes, U.S. law enforcement officials said.
"Unfortunately, this kind of stuff happens all the time,"
said Danny A. Defenbaugh, a security consultant and former
agent-in-charge of the FBI office in Dallas. "It's a price you
pay when you get too close to the ground."
And this particular episode, some U.S. officials added, could
be one of the worst examples of an informant going bad.
"Black Mass pales in comparison to this," said a former U.S.
law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He was referring to an FBI scandal in Boston from the
mid-1970s through the early 1990s in which Irish-American
informants protected by the agency killed several members of the
Mafia. In 2002, agent-in-charge John Connolly was convicted of
racketeering, obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI. He
was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The Juárez-informant case comes amid the biggest
reorganization of federal departmental agencies in more than 50
years. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Washington created the
mammoth Department of Homeland Security, into which were
subsumed a number of formerly free-standing departments,
including the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the
Customs Department, which became ICE.
More than ever, an effective fight against terrorism requires
interagency cooperation, said current and former law enforcement
officials, who added that the failure of ICE and the DEA to
share notes, or talk to each other, constitutes a security risk.
ICE officials declined to comment. A DEA spokeswoman referred
questions to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Embassy officials
did not respond to written questions.
Law enforcement officials with knowledge of the informant's
complex history gave these details to The News:
• The informant had worked for the DEA less than a year
before that agency "deactivated" him last summer, when the U.S.
Border Patrol caught him trying to smuggle more than 220 pounds
of marijuana into the United States.
• Instead of landing in jail, the informant continued his
affiliation with ICE, for whom he already had been working at
least three years – unbeknownst to his DEA handlers.
• ICE intelligence agents apparently were equally unaware
that the informant was still taking orders from the Juárez
The informant's activities in Juárez probably would have
continued had he not tried "whacking two undercover U.S. drug
agents," a U.S. official said. Those agents had been living in
Juárez to better gather intelligence. It is not clear if the
informant knew the targets were U.S. drug agents, sources said.
On Jan. 14, about a dozen armed Chihuahua police officers led
by Cmdr. Loya knocked on the door of a rental home occupied by
an undercover DEA agent and his wife and children. The agent
wasn't home, and the family, trained not to open the door,
ignored the knocks, authorities said. DEA officials in El Paso,
tipped by the family, requested help from Mexican federal
agents, who responded immediately.
Thirteen Chihuahua police officers are under house arrest in
an undetermined place in connection with the attempted raid.
Cmdr. Loya and three other state police officers remain at
large. Chihuahua state Attorney General Jesús José "Chito" Solís
resigned last week, amid questions about the conduct of his
On Jan. 15, the informant – apparently to save face – helped
set up the capture of Mr. Santillán, 49, the cartel lieutenant.
Mr. Santillán was arrested as he tried to cross the border past
El Paso sheriff's deputies, who had been lying in wait. Mr.
Santillán remains in an El Paso jail, awaiting a March 24 court
hearing on federal drug trafficking charges.
"The informant seems to have wanted to deflect the attention
from himself, so he helped capture Santillán," said the former
U.S. law enforcement official.
For this reason, added another police informant, "no one is
more interested in this case than Vicente Carrillo Fuentes. He's
desperate to know the name of the informant – if he doesn't know
already – so he can whack him. This has been very damaging for
Eight days after Mr. Santillán's arrest, Mexican federal
agents armed with an affidavit signed by two ICE agents got
approval from a Mexican federal judge to dig up a
4-foot-by-6-foot patio of a house on Parsioneros Street in the
Acequias neighborhood of Juárez.
Two Austin Police Department officers were deployed to Juárez
with trained dogs, which immediately sniffed out 10 spots, one
of which yielded two bodies, one on top of the other. The home's
occupants, Alejandro García, his wife and two sons, were
arrested as they tried to flee to the United States. Authorities
said they suspect that Mr. García, a former Chihuahua police
officer, had worked for the Juárez cartel for more than a year.
The victims apparently were rivals of Mr. Carrillo Fuentes'
drug gang and had been executed with "extreme violence" as long
as six months ago, said Mexico Attorney General Rafael Macedo de
la Concha. Several of the victims were strangled or had
"They had been tortured and executed to cement the power of
the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel, a cell allegedly headed by
Santillán," the U.S. attorney general's office in San Antonio
said, citing Mexico's deputy attorney general.
The 12 men buried in the Juárez back yard were killed in a
drug dispute, the Mexican attorney general's office has
confirmed. The victims told their executioners that they had a
large quantity of marijuana stored at another Juárez home,
prosecutors said in a statement. Authorities went to the second
home Thursday and seized almost two tons of marijuana.
Mr. Santillán, already facing federal drug charges, has been
indicted by the U.S. government on charges of "killing, or
helping to kill, five of the 12 men," according to the
indictment. Eleven others, including Mr. Loya, also were
indicted on those charges.
The victims included Luis Padilla Cardona, 29, a 1995
graduate of Socorro High School in Socorro, a small farming
community outside El Paso. The others were Fernando Reyes Aguado,
Cesar Rubio, Omar Cepeda Saenz and Juan Carlos Pérez Gómez. The
indictment said the men "died after Aug. 5th."
Staff writer Ricardo Sandoval in Mexico City contributed
to this report.